Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Saints Row IV (PC)

Saints Row IV logo
Sometimes on Super Adventures I play ancient retro games, sometimes I play obscure indie titles, but for the next two weeks I've decided to play nothing but semi-recent story-driven sandbox shooters beginning with the letter 'S', because I can. First up is Saints Row IV.

There was a bit of a incident in early 2013 where the game's original publisher (THQ) kind of exploded, and seeing as they also owned the developer (Volition), that could've been the end for Saints Row right there. Fortunately Deep Silver stepped in to save the day, purchasing Volition and ensuring that the Saints Row saga continued with the developer's vision intact.

The game was released on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows, and I'm playing the PC version. If the graphics look a little blocky around the edges, that's because I had an issue with the anti-aliasing and decided to turn it off entirely. It's probably the fault of my ancient graphics card rather than the game itself though, so don't judge it too harshly. All other settings are on the highest they go up to, surprisingly

(Click the images to view them at 1280x800).

The story starts with the leaders of celebrity street gang The Third Street Saints flying across mountains and oil fields by helicopter on some kind of covert op, discussing how they're going to meet up with an MI6 agent on the ground. Well Shaundi (standing by the window),  Pierce (sitting down) and Kinzie (on the radio) are talking anyway; my character remains silent due him/her having a mask on and Kinzie forgetting to put new batteries in his/her radio. Also I haven't had a chance to define my character's face, voice or even sex yet, so there's another good reason.

I'm not 100% certain why a group of rich American celebrity gangstas are working with the British government on a special forces op in some other country entirely, but the fact that they've got Long Tall Sally by Little Richard (youtube) playing has me worried that we might be going after the Predator. 

It's gone all Call of Duty! I even got to kick a door in and shoot a room full of terrorists in slow motion. I'm glad that Volition has finally seen sense and dropped the dated GTA-style sandbox gameplay to jump onto the Modern Warfare bandwagon. Man... I shouldn't even joke about that.

It turns out that we're here to stop an old enemy of the Saints turned terrorist, before he can nuke Washington DC. I know the guy's still pissed off with us for blowing up his aircraft carrier in the last game, but his retribution seems a little disproportionate.

Also we don't even live in Washington DC!

Well the bad news is that I was too late to stop the missile launch, but on the plus side I managed to catch a ride on the bomb, Captain America style! Oh damn that didn't work out too well for him did it?

Honestly I wouldn't have expected the leader of the Saints to ever sacrifice themselves for another, especially people who aren't in the gang (in fact they probably kill a thousand pedestrians a week just through shitty driving alone), but here we are. I ain't even going to spoil what song's playing right now, you'll have to play the game yourself or watch a video to find that out.

A narrator at the beginning of the game mentioned that the Third Street Saints were originally seen as mere pretenders to the throne and had to make a choice between being sociopathic killing machines hell-bent on destruction or puckish rogues living a life of mirth and whimsy. Or maybe the developers had to make that choice, it's a bit meta. Either way I can't imagine Tommy Vercetti or Niko Bellic ripping a nuke apart with their bare hands to save millions, so I guess we're puckish rogues now.

Farewell leader of the Saints, you may have killed a whole lot of folks for a laugh but you died a true hero.

Well I suppose that's one good thing about disarming a missile aimed at a city with mere seconds to spare: you can just let go and drop the rest of the way yourself (and hope there's a comfy chair below you). The Oval Office must have some bloody good chairs to be able break that fall... even if the ceiling helped a bit.

In fact this seems like a cool office in general, maybe we'll move in ourselves.

Saints Row IV Presidency Unlocked message
Now that is an efficient way of handling exposition. No need to go into detail about how I rode the wave of public support I got from saving Washington DC all the way to the White House when 'Adoration Unlocked' and 'Presidency Unlocked' gets the gist of it across much faster.

The weird thing is though, that Saints logo was already on the Oval Office carpet in place of the regular Presidential Seal when I crashed in through the ceiling,

Anyway, now that I'm finally past the intro level, that helmet can come off and I can reveal my true face...

...a skinny green-haired anime pixel girl. Or whatever I want to be really; I can just as easily play as an overweight man with polished silver skin and an iridescent purple mohawk, or even someone normal looking perhaps. I'd be amazed by how powerful this character creator is if I wasn't spoiled by seeing it already in the last game.

Like in Saints Row 3 I've been given a choice from three male voices and three female voices, though sadly not exactly the same actors as last time. Nothing against the new voice actors, but the Russian sounding female voice has gone AWOL, which kinda sucks as she was the voice of my character.

Saints Row 3 came with a bonus 'Zombie' voice, but that joke has apparently gotten old as they've replaced it with a new extra voice simply labelled 'Nolan North'. I think I will actually choose a male character this time, but I'll go with the 'Male 1' voice for now as Troy Baker is awesome. It's not like I can't change it later if I feel like it. There's still no way to enter my name though, as I've somehow reached the highest office in the US without revealing my identity to anyone.

Damn, I've barely taken three steps down the hallway and I've already got Keith David asking me to make a decision of world changing proportions. Ah whatever, I'll go with the first one and sort out the global hunger crisis later.

Keith David is my Vice President by the way, played by acting legend Keith David. Because why not?

Okay, what's my next task as leader of the free world? Oh, I'm supposed to be attending a press conference. Well that's almost as fun as taking part in a daring anti-terrorist raid to stop a nuke I guess.

Oh thank fuck aliens have invaded! I thought I might have to go the whole morning without even a little bit of third person shooting.

The tall one with the exposed midriff is the leader of this attack, a man named Zinyak, and he's just dropped by to kidnap the best and the brightest of Earth, starting with my tech expert/press secretary Kinzie. He's very polite about it all though I have to say, and weirdly he has the voice of a classically trained English theatre actor. He definitely seems at home up on that stage, that's for sure, though he disappears back to his ship before I have a chance to shoot at him.

Great, not only is there an alien army marching through the White House, but these assholes keep beaming all of my staff up to the mothership! At this rate I'll be the last one left in here, with only incoming fire to keep me company. And regular fire.

Well it only takes one pistol shot to the head to kill your average sentient being and I've got a 244 rounds on me, so as long as the invaders only number in the low hundreds I think I can still make this work. I tended to stick with the pistol in Saints Row 3, but I think even I have to admit that this would be a good time to switch up to something with more firepower.

This is better! I sure hope none of my people are up on those ships, because I'm tearing through them with this artillery. Hail to the Chief you assholes.

You know what this reminds me of? Well yeah, obviously Space Invaders, but you know what ELSE this reminds me of? Duke Nukem Forever. The two games both open with the hero about to appear on television when an alien mothership comes down and starts wrecking the city, driving the protagonist to climb into their own custom gun turret to make those alien bastards pay by personally shooting down their ride.

It's just kind of a shame that shooting down aliens from a stationary turret is actually pretty boring and going along the same road as DNF possibly wasn't the smartest move Volition could've made, even if there's a chance that it's a deliberate parody. I was almost glad when Zinyak himself came back down to bring an end to it by beating the crap out of me (both verbally and physically... and perhaps psychically too, who knows).

Well this is... different. I woke up on a comfy chair in this beautifully retro suburban house to find that I've picked up a habit of striding around with a jaunty walk and saying things like 'gosh' and 'goodness me' instead of cursing like a motherflipper. Also the music is a little more offensively cheerful than usual.

Oh crumbs, I've been brainwashed and trapped inside a 50's sitcom! My first clue should've been when a 'Leave it to the Saints' flashed on screen, followed by an advert for a new stove. Though on the plus side, I've got my own laugh track now.

Saints Row IV waffles QTE
Darn, these aliens know all my weaknesses, they're using QTEs on me! I'm being forced by a QTE to eat pancakes!

Anyway, I won't bore you with the step by step on exactly how I managed to escape this nightmarish virtual reality, though basically what happened was that a psychotic cat brought me a rocket launcher so I could shoot Agent Smith in front of the town hall from Back to the Future. Sadly however, an escape from Pleasantville didn't mean an escape from The Matrix.

One virtual hell replaced by a new one. This time I at least get the entirety of modern day Steelport, (the setting of Saints Row: The Third) to run around in. Though on the downside, it's the setting of Saints Row: The Third AGAIN. Though there's been a few... alterations, courtesy of the new architect of my reality. Absolute power was a lot more fun when I was the one in power.

I don't know what Zinyak's deal is, but he sure seems to be going to a lot of trouble to break my spirit and gain my obedience. If this turns out to be anything like Superman 64's VR Metropolis, it might just do the job.

Well it's actually kind of nice to be back in Steelport again, not that I have any idea where I am in Steelport. Hang on, is this pile of rubble sitting behind the camera the ruins of my old HQ? With the swimming pool and the helipad? Damn you Zinyak, that was my favourite crib! I'll make you pay for... deleting a virtual copy of my building!

One of the complaints I've heard about the game is that it's basically just an extended DLC expansion to Saints Row: The Third, reusing most of the assets and taking place on the same map. But I'm curious about that now, as this street doesn't quite look how I remember it looking. Where's those two connected buildings I used to fly my jet fighter between?

Saints Row: The Third (PC)
Well the buildings nearest me are basically unchanged, but those skyscrapers in the distance are looking a fair bit different. So even if the road layout is the same, at least I'll have some new scenery to look at. Like giant alien towers and billboards telling me to give up all hope and submit to Zinyak for instance.

Anyway, my tech expert Kinzie has (somehow) managed to hack into the simulation from wherever she is right now and has resumed her hobby of giving me helpful advice and mission orders, so I should probably go do what she says.

This car I borrowed handles pretty well, especially considering that the road's obviously been hosed down by a Hollywood film crew. They just gotta have those reflections and who can blame them? They make the place looks awesome.

The GPS system has returned from the last game and it's one of the best I've seen in a game, giving me both a breadcrumb trail on the minimap and racing game style arrows along the street. I don't have to keep peering down in the bottom right corner while I drive.

Like in all of these crime 'em up sandbox games, my first proper mission is to go buy a gun; as a tutorial lesson to teach me about gun shops and how they can enrich my gaming experience. Also it makes sure that I have a gun for the next bit, which is gonna be a tutorial on where the evil aliens hang out.


SOON, AFTER A TRIP TO THE GUN STORE.


Dammit I can't lose these guys! These virtual cops been harassing me ever since the incident at the gun shop and... oh hold up, there's a Planet Saints! Sorry, the chase is cancelled; I've been wearing this bow tie ever since my stay in Pleasantville and desperately need to change into something more my colour.

I'm probably jumping ahead of the tutorial a bit by doing this, but I'm sure the game will forgive me. The cops won't, but screw those guys. This is a virtual reality run by an evil alien dictator for the sole purpose of eroding my spirit, and these simulated police officers are currently trying to stop me, the lawfully elected President of the United States, from saving the human race. So I'm not feeling the need to respect their authority.

Oh that's real funny Zinyak, renaming my Planet Saints chain to Planet Zin. It all seems very much as I left it though, with options to change my hat, glasses, upper body, lower body, backpack, underwear, shoes, watch earrings... though not capes. There are NO separate cape options, which seems like a bit of an oversight in a game featuring super powers. I'm sure a few outfits have gone missing since the last game, but there's a fair number of new items too so I'm happy.

I dropped by a Rim Jobs garage and tried customising a car as well and I confirm that's all pretty much the same as it was in Saints Row 3 as well. Though now when I'm in a car I have the new option to save a copy of it into my own virtual garage. That's actually a bit disappointing for me as I liked driving my stolen cars back to the crib to claim them.

Ah, so this is what I needed the gun for. They had these zones scattered around the city in the last game as well, though there were less glowy sci-fi pillars back then.

It should only take a single headshot to kill these creatures, but I'm making a total mess of it right now. In fact I fucked up so much that I got my guy killed and had to restart from the last checkpoint (which was about 20 seconds ago maybe). I think the problem I'm having here is that I'm still playing like I have regenerating health and can just go and hide for a bit to refill my health bar. But inside the virtual world things don't work like that; instead I have to kill enemies to make them drop health pick-ups. So I need to get up close to my targets and keep getting those kills, or else they'll nibble away my health to nothing, one laser at a time.


SOON.


Yep, that's definitely Steelport alright; they haven't added any extra islands to it or moved the streets around. All the shops seem to be right where I left them as well, though the President has forgotten what they all are, so I have to go around and rediscover them, along with the various activities.

Something else that I've been told to discover and collect are glowing blue code fragment things, as "they seem like they'll be useful". Not even Kinzie has any idea what they're for though.

Well there you go. Walk into four blue fragment things and you explode with purple sparks, like a one man firework display.

Oh shit I have super powers now? That's all I needed to do to gain the ability to run faster than cars and leap tall buildings? Damn, I'm going to grab some more of these things.

Every time I grab one of these glowing blue code fragments I notice another one a couple of rooftops away and glide off to grab it. Then I notice another one and another one. This is basically my life now, grabbing blue things off buildings. It's like Crackdown's agility orbs all over again; the title coming from the fact that collecting these things is as addictive as crack.

Eventually I found my way over to that tower on the right in the distance and found that these blue things go all the way up. So I guess I am too.

Here's a thing that Saints Row 3 didn't have a great deal of: platforming. It is so so easy to overshoot these floating platforms and crash back to Earth, though fortunately there's no falling damage this time and I can activate checkpoints on the way up. I can even climb the walls of the tower itself by continually jumping at them. I'm not quite Spider-Man yet, but I'm working on it.

I can't buy any new powers, but I can invest fragments into the powers I have to upgrade their strength and unlock new aspects to them.

Oh awesome, my cache has filled up, so I can... cash that in now to get money. Cache is dropped by dead enemies, earned by finishing missions etc, but I also receive regular payments based on the activities, hacking and targets I've completed. So even if I'm wasting my time out jumping on platforms instead of doing missions, I'm still going to end up with some extra money to spend at the end of it.

There's an actual purpose to earning cache as there's a lot I can spend it on, like new outfits, car mods, character upgrades and weapons upgrades (no property this time though). Certain upgrades are locked until I reach a higher level, but it'll take me a while just to afford the stuff I have unlocked now.


LATER.


I'm definitely spotting a pattern with these side missions. They're often about running into an area of enemies guarding a glowing red tower, then killing 'em all dead. Sometimes I even have to punch the tower as well to deactivate a forcefield revealing more aliens and a bigger tower.

In Saints Row 3 I liked to drive my car right into the middle of the group, then lob a grenade over to detonate it and envelope the whole lot of them in cleansing flame and a whole lot of shrapnel. Sadly Saints Row 4 has removed my grenades, so I had to come up with an alternative technique. Now I just run into them with super speed and hit the melee attack button.

Super speed melee attack is an instant takedown, every time. They drop some health orbs for me to grab and then I charge right over to the next guy.

Well this is new. It seems that Zinyak's a little bit pissed off that I keep shutting down his maintenance towers and he's sent a warden in to... stop me? He can't be here to kill me, because I'm sure I remember Zinyak saying earlier that he wants me broken, not dead.

Oh wait, he's definitely trying to kill me; jumping around onto rooftops and firing energy blasts at me. I can't use my super speed takedown here, but fortunately I brought pistols, which tend to solve most other problems if applied to the target's brain. It's just a matter of keeping my crosshairs on his head, while stepping around the crap that keeps flying my way.

Hah, I seriously have to do a QTE here before I can dive into him, Neo-style, and destroy him from the inside? I thought the QTEs during the intro were just a joke, but it seems like they're here to stay.

Anyway, he's dead now and I have his power apparently. Which turns out to be the power to shoot ice beams from my hand and freeze enemies solid. Kinzie decides to drag me off to a practice level to show me how it works.

The power of freeze blast plus the power of shotgun is a compelling combination. My super power attacks have a cool down period, but they're not linked to my super sprint or jump, so I can run around all I like while I'm waiting for freeze to charge up again. Well, until I run out of stamina anyway. Must remember to upgrade my stamina when I get the cash.

Kinzie tells me that wardens are going to have shields from now on that I'll need to deactivate with a blast, so that ought to make them a little more interesting. But then I'm also told that the next quest is to escape the Virtual Steelport and return to my body in the real world, so who even knows what's going to happen next?

Dammit Kinzie, next time you eject me from a Matrix-style goop-filled VR pod, it'd be cool if you could be around in a high-tech hovercraft thing to pick me up. It turns out I was up on the alien mothership this whole time... and they've stolen my pants. I had my fucking keys and wallet in those pants, plus all my Presidential nuke codes written on a little card.
 
Oh hey, Kinzie did bring her own ship to save me! She refuses to explain how she got out of VR and managed to steal the thing, but it's hard to press that issue when I'm trying to pilot a reasonably big alien ship through the inside of an absurdly huge one.

Especially when people keep telling me to "Do a barrel roll"; man that shit just isn't going to help here.

So I guess I finally have my own crib... and it's a spaceship. I can live with that. I'd be annoyed that Kinzie rescued Keith David before saving me, but it's hard to complain about having Captain Anderson on board. No time to walk around and check the place out now though, as we've come up with a brilliant plan to get back at Zinyak: we log back into the simulation and start breaking shit again.

Well it's certainly nice to be wrecking glowy red things again, this time with Star Trek/Mass Effect style lens flares! In this case I'm shooting a portal so these enemies will stop spawning in and I can disable this generator to take down a forcefield and then disable something else.

It doesn't seem likely I'll be recruiting prostitutes, protecting drug deals, or assassinating rival gang leaders any time soon, in fact the other gangs are missing entirely, but that's fine as there's more to life than organised crime. But the missions I am doing are so abstract that it's hard to me to give a shit about them on any level beyond the base gameplay. I mean I just took a side quest from Keith David that was supposed to be about applying the things we learned while running for office together... and it literally involved just running down the street. It was a regular average running down the street activity mission, just with a line of dialogue from Keith David at the start of it.

Saints Row IV hacking minigame
Now that we're accessing the simulation from outside of the mothership, I need to hack shops before I'll be able to use them again. So that means it's hacking minigame time and for this game they've gone with... Pipe Mania (AKA. Pipe Dream). This isn't massively different to BioShock's hacking, with the goal being to get the line connected from the left side to the right side with a series of tubes before the timer runs out. It's alright, but I think I preferred SR3's system, where I just bought the bloody shop instead.

Oh by the way, here's something I forgot to mention about the gun shops: I can customise the upgrades and appearance of my weapons now.

I can turn my Desert Eagle into a Blade Runner or Firefly handgun, my 9mm pistol into a phaser or a blaster, my MAC-10 SMG into Robocop's modified Beretta... and each of them come in three different colours!

Every time I start to get a little bored by the nature of the missions, or tired of Kinzie being basically the only Saint to talk to me outside of my ship, the game throws over another toy or feature to distract me, and it always works.

See, now I'm using the power of my mind to throw cars through rings for points, because why not? Honestly I think I liked the two commentators talking about the action more than the activity itself, but hey they're part of the game too! Also I love my victory dance at the end of it:

HULK DANCE.

Alright enough playing around, it's time to put these childish antics behind me and get down to the serious business of rescuing the other Saints from Zinyak's gootubes the same way that Kinzie saved me. I've got a lot of allies so I'm likely going to be spending a fair amount of the game doing these missions.

Step 1: Hack into my friend's simulation and break them out of their own personal VR hell.

I have no superpowers outside of Virtual Steelport, though Kinzie was kind enough to drop me a tank for this job. She's still working on getting a proper third person camera working though.

I'm actually struggling a little bit here, as I keep getting distracted by all the ultra-nerdy jokes showing up in the console up there as Kinzie tries to figure out the commands. I guess that's a metaphor for the whole game really, it puts comedy above everything else... sometimes literally.

But at the same time, the game seems to address the morality of the lead characters in a way that Saints Row: The Third really didn't.

Now that my violent murderous protagonist has been put in a situation where those traits are actually positives, his antagonists are cartoonishly evil, and the only humans he can hurt are imaginary, he's basically become a pure hero. He is Paragon Commander Shepard: kind and loyal to his friends, but ruthless to those who would threaten his people. But Zinyak won't let him off the hook for the shit he's done in games past (despite his protestations of being a puckish rogue), and really it's hard to argue with his point when he says that humanity may actually be better off without their new leader in the long run.

But fuck him, I'm gonna rescue the other Saints anyway. My ship needs a crew already.


LATER.


Alright, I've broken my potential crewmate out of his VR pod, but that still leaves him naked and unarmed in the cold hallways of an alien mothership. So now I need to go in there with my robot suit and help him out. Uh, power armour I mean... whatever.

This level would be so much more awesome if I didn't hate it so much. I'm mostly just shooting the waves of tiny enemies as they swarm in from the doors, keeping track of these blue health cannisters on the floor for when I'm damaged and need a repair. I just want it to be over with already so I can get back to leaping skyscrapers.

At least I'll have an extra crewmember when it's over. There's so many empty rooms on my ship right now without anyone inside to interact with. Not that my dialogue options are quite as extensive as in, say, Mass Effect...

In fact the game streamlines my choices to only two options for each character, getting straight to the point. The 'romance' option does exactly what you probably think it does by the way. In a very respectful, character appropriate way of course.

Anyway, I rescued the guy, got me some new missions to do back in city, everything's cool. Seems like a good point to quit.


CONCLUSION


It think it's fair to say that I loved the shit out of Saints Row IV, but not quite as much as I could have. It suffers from a similar problem to Saints Row: The Third, in that a great deal of the missions are just side activities in disguise, and those activities are never as fun as gliding around a city using super powers. Though on the plus side, the game does feature a fair amount of gliding around a city using super powers, and this helps make it feel very different to the last game, despite the fact that it's the same city you're gliding over.

One of the strengths of the Saints Row 3 was the interactions between the characters, but this seems to have lost some of that. Sure I'm getting new characters as I go, but while I'm in the city it's mostly Kinzie's voice I hear, telling me what red glowy thing to punch next and explaining that it's not important for me to know why. She's become the Chloe O'Brian to my Jack Bauer, and as much as I like the character, I miss the others being around. Some of the best parts of the last game was when the Boss was just hanging out with their homies and joking around.

Overall I'd say that Saints Row IV is definitely worth playing for anyone with a sense of humour and at least half an interest in sandbox games, even if you're already sick of Saints Row: The Third. In fact I'd also say that Saints Row: The Third is also still worth playing, even if you're used to the super powers in Saints Row IV, as cars are awesome and this game is going to make you miss driving them almost as much as it'll you miss being able to run up walls in every other game you play after it.

    

If you want to argue with me about Saints Row IV, feel free to leave a comment. If you agree with me, then you could leave a comment about that as well! Share your various opinions.

3 comments:

  1. I loved this game, I was just kinda off put by the alien aspect of it. I could just go back and play Saints Row 3 if I want to kill more people though. If it was called anything other than Saints Row I feel like i would have enjoyed it more for some reason... :P Ill stop my whining.

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  2. Hey, have you heard of Gat out of Hell? It's a standalone expansion pack for this, looks like it could make an interesting article for the site.

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    Replies
    1. I have, but I'm trying to pretend it doesn't exist for a while until the price drops.

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